A speechwriter who can't make eye contact, a computer programmer who communicates through puppets. They were once fellows at a very special school, and they have a lot to teach us all about what it means to be human, David Newnham discovers
Send in the Idiots: or how we grew to understand the world
By Kamran Nazeer
Bloomsbury Press pound;12.99
Kamran Nazeer went to Cambridge. He has a degree in law and another in philosophy, and he makes a living writing political speeches and advising ministers on policy. It comes as a bit of a shock, then, to learn that Kamran did not speak until he was four years old.
That was in 1982, the year that he was diagnosed with autism and the year that his Pakistani parents, then living in New York, enrolled him in a special school that was even more special than most.
There, he and a handful of other children calling themselves the Idiots were painstakingly connected with the world outside themselves by teachers who must then have been pioneers in the field of developmental psychology.
Clearly this early intervention stood Kamran in good stead. But what of his classmates? Did they, too, manage to hack it in the "normal" world? Two decades later, Kamran decides to find out.
Three agree to meet him, as do the parents of a fourth. But it isn't long before Kamran realises the essentially autistic nature of his project. Did he really think that, after 20 years, he could just drift into these people's lives, then drift on out again without causing a ripple? Catching up is never that simple.
Which is fortunate for the reader. Because what might have been a dry, hand-wringing documentary about the challenges facing people with autism turns out to be a collection of involving narratives and thought-provoking discussions about what it means to be human.
Take Andre. He works at the cutting edge of software design, developing a program that will enable a computer to analyse what it sees. But, at a social level, he communicates by way of handmade wooden puppets. Interrupt "Boo", or "Sylvie" or "Ben-Gurion" in mid-flow and Andre flies into a fury.
On the first night, he locks Kamran in the bathroom for doing as much, and on their last day together he runs off with Kamran's boarding pass, leaving him stranded at the airport.
Only when Andre's sister explains that her brother once nearly killed a man in a fit of rage does Kamran grasp the full significance of his old school friend's bizarre mode of communication.
As an autistic person who has arrived at a particular place on the spectrum, speaking through puppets is the only way Andre now knows of negotiating the complex game which is conversation.
Craig might not use wooden puppets to speak his lines, but he does something similar. Like Kamran, he writes political speeches for a living.
But ask him to deliver one of his own orations and he is hopeless. He speaks in an expressionless monotone and has a crippling inability to make eye contact which does him no favours at job interviews. Yet the man is rhetorically talented, so much so that senators employ him to feed them pat answers at important press conferences.
Randall might not have attained such giddy heights; a courier in Chicago, he gets nervous riding his bicycle if it makes unusual sounds. But he does write outstanding poetry. And, more importantly, he seems to have ended up in a steady, loving relationship.
But is it fair to call him an autistic poet? Is he being two-timed by his non-autistic boyfriend? And who are the men in suits who are eager to employ the literal-minded Randall in some sort of gun-running enterprise? Kamran's arrival seems to bring a number of issues to a head in Randall's life, at the same time raising questions about the nature of genius and the dynamics of relationships.
And then there is Elizabeth, whom Kamran barely remembers from 20 years ago as a young girl learning to play the piano. Bedevilled by epilepsy, schizophrenia and depression, she swallowed all of her many tablets one day, before disappearing beneath the cover of the family swimming pool at the age of 26. A tragedy? Undeniably. Yet on meeting his old teachers again (the school closed through lack of a benefactor), Kamran concludes that all of his former classmates, Elizabeth included, have somehow "got better"
since their early years.
Against all the expectations that saddle autistic people, they alleviated their condition, an achievement which is partly due, he says, to the intervention of teachers and parents, but ultimately to their own hard work.